You and I and all those people out there with a vocal love of film have ruined it for everyone, pimping movies up, falling in love with mediocre films and championing them to near-legendary status. We’ve embraced turkeys, legitimized borderline movies, and elevated modest films in our favorite franchises above and beyond realistic standards. We’ve even embraced the films everyone likes, somehow adding a credibility to them that transcends the mainstream. Sacred cows, little flicks, and everything in between. It’s time we took a look inward and came clean with 25 movies we think need to be taken down a peg or two.
These are our four categories for this list:
These guys have had it too easy. Far too easy. Don’t believe the insane hype.
Good flicks that have gotten too damn big for their britches.
Asshole, you love this film for all the wrong reasons.
WHAT THE FUCK
Something went horribly wrong here, and it’s carried over to the fans, who are blinded by shizer.
Its Legacy: Rendered Stephen Hawking’s proposed action movie obsolete; primed Swayze for cancer (too soon?); 1035 babies (to date) conceived while listening to ‘Killing Moon'; no babies conceived during teen sex dreams featuring Jake Gyllenhaal; gave Mary McDonnell a taste of power; popularity and subsequent director’s cut suggested Southland Tales could be cut, cut and re-cut; made audiences suspicious of Primer by default.
Why It’s Here: One question: “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” Somewhere in the library of cross-media reference created to support this story Richard Kelly surely has some explanation/excuse for that line. But within the film the best possible meaning is a thin arrow pointing towards Donnie’s ultimate fate. It really seems to exist merely to sound good, like a mnemonic hook for the flick. You remember the line, so you remember the movie. Like so much of the so-called science fiction within Donnie Darko, it’s an empty facade.
Kelly’s hypermedia backstory — the website and subsequent book — does no good to anyone who sees only the film; as a single piece of work it’s a total mess. If the sci-fi aspects held more water I might be willing to consider the movie as just one piece of a larger media puzzle. But given the opportunity to make a final cut, Kelly proved that he really did want a standalone movie, and not a very good one, at that.
Which is all a (very) minor tragedy, because a pretty good high school movie hides in the edits between the time travel claptrap. Awkward as it is, I like Donnie struggling with his therapy (some of it, anyway) and his initial uncomfortable relationship with Gretchen. There’s a lot of potential in the idea that Donnie could find meaning with Gretchen rather than being so self-involved. It’s the classic teenage problem. His mom’s constant drinking is a nice, telling detail, as is his father’s passivity. And sue me, but Seth Rogen’s uncomfortable bully is fine by me.
But many of the high school characters are drawn as thin as the time travel threads. Take Kitty, the shrewish gym teacher, the school principal and the teachers played by Noah Wylie and Drew Barrymore. The latter two often seem to appear just because Kelly needed to use the footage. Each has some memorable lines, but Kitty is among the few with any meaningful ones, like “of all the other mothers, I would never dream of asking you.”
Even as the movie skids all over the road, it has an energy and conviction that can be awfully convincing. Kelly knows what will get a response from his audience. He layers good music, a heaping dollop of slow motion and some excellent production design into a product that is powerful enough to temporarily eclipse the emptiness behind it, at least until the conclusion assembles maudlin happenstance and cheap voice over to give the impression that the movie has built to anything but a hollow crescendo.
A Moment of Piss: When the time-spear effect borrowed from The Abyss actually goes Looney Tunes and makes a beckoning finger for Donnie Darko to follow.
These Ain’t Chopped Liver Alternatives: Primer. Time After Time. Groundhog Day. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (take that ‘Dre!) And, in fact, all the alternatives for that movie.
Justin Waddell Agrees: It’s almost as if Kelly himself misunderstands the film. Donnie Darko is a culmination of everything that influenced him to become a filmmaker. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Philip K. Dick and Stephen King novels. Watership Down. Songs from the Big Chair. Harvey. Swayze! And like Eli Roth did with Cabin Fever, Kelly just scrunches it all up and fastballs it onto the screen. This odd, sad storyline about high school that’s bursting at the seams really works. Russ calls it a mess, but it seems like a controlled scramble to me. The great and interesting cast help sell it, but Kelly simply made a mysterious and moving film. And then he went and dipped back into flick for the inevitable director’s cut, and the film falls apart…slowly. Watching it makes you think that the initial movie was all just smoke and mirrors in the first place. If you sample the deleted scenes on the original DVD, some scenes just really do beg to be included in the movie. I can understand why Kelly would want to restore some of them (the Watership Down classroom discussion, for example.) But the over-explanation of the time travel portion of the story (written out as excerpts from the in-movie novel) bogs the director’s cut down. Kelly wants to solve the mystery for us, fill in the potholes – but it’s just not the point. The fans already had a movie they loved. So, it turns out that a leashed Kelly is probably the better than the unbridled Kelly. Southland Tales and Domino, of course, helping to smack this idea home.
Devin Faraci Disagrees: If ever a movie could argue for Barthes’ concept of ‘Death of the Author,’ Donnie Darko would be that movie. It’s hard to get past the horrible director’s cut that proved that Richard Kelly did not have a firm grasp on what made the movie special in the first place -which is one of the things that bothers Russ so much. The movie’s science fiction doesn’t really make sense, it never quite coheres, but that feels right. There are metaphysical things happening in Donnie’s life that are bigger than our understanding, but like a trippy Philip K Dick story or Grant Morrisons’ The Invisibles, it doesn’t make sense in a way that itself does make sense. There’s a larger picture that you can’t quite see, but that you know is there.
Of course that’s an accident. But this is where the Death of the Author comes in: forget that Kelly is a frat boy and that his natural inclination is not to sublime mystery but to heavy handed lecturing. Who cares what song was intended to be playing over the tracking shot in the high school when the one that is playing works so well? The ‘stupid man suit’ line… sure it doesn’t make actual sense, but when put into your own context it’s a tantalizing clue as to what is lurking just beyond the edge of reality and understanding. The original cut of Donnie Darko is such a noteworthy anomaly because it allows us just enough room to play with meaning and theme without really going beyond what is offered. It’s the perfect movie for a long, late night bullshit session. Sure, there’s something college dorm roomy about that, but fuck it, we were all that age.
And beyond that, I think Donnie Darko is a fascinatingly off-kilter coming of age story. Mortality isn’t new to coming of age stories, but it’s rarely so central to one. And one of the lessons that Donnie seems to learn is that the world is a strange, confusing place that doesn’t always make sense, and that sometimes you have to do things for a bigger purpose, even when you’re not quite sure why. There’s a line in Jesus Christ Superstar that echoes through the end of Donnie Darko for me; it’s from the scene when Jesus is having his moment of doubt in the garden of Gethsemane and he says to God, ‘You’re far too keen on when and how, and not so hot on why!’ I think that may be the only time Andrew Lloyd Weber and Richard Kelly have been juxtaposed.